Suffice to say, we know what Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll will never be. It’s never going to get too complicated, the drama will always remain minimal, and any conflict will likely be resolved before the credits roll at the 30-minute mark. No, seven meandering episodes later, Denis Leary’s FX comedy series has clumsily proven it’s comfortable as an alternative sitcom, a family-friendly capsule of laughs and scoffs washed down with a glass half-filled with heart. It’s escapist humor for anyone uninterested in a legitimate story about a legitimate band struggling in a legitimate portrayal of how the not-so-legitimate music industry works. Perhaps we were foolish to believe the contrary, but at this angle, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is at the very least serviceable. And its latest episode, “Supercalifragilisticjuliefriggingandrews”, suggests just as much.
After last week’s promising catch-turned-fumble, “Tattoo You”, writer Evan Reilly takes a potentially indefinite smoke break as Leary makes a brisk return to the writer’s room. To his credit, he carves out his sharpest entry yet here as he goes on to outline the previously unspoken family tree of Johnny Rock. As such, we meet his mother Elizabeth (the great Kelly Bishop), his father Dr. Edward Egan (the equally great Peter Riegert), and his soon-to-be stepfather Jeremy (the equally great and yet oft-criminally underused Roger Bart). It’s an episode about regret, about heritage, about vices, and about destiny … well, in as much as any episode of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll can really be about anything. What separates this from the rest of what we’ve seen so far is an identifiable marriage of comprehension and execution.
At long last, Leary has the nerve to write an ensemble comedy, and everyone capitalizes on the material by bringing their A-game, including director Michael Blieden. It all starts when Johnny gets a call from his mother, who smugly informs him that she’s not only dying of cancer but getting married again. “Is that my grandmother,” Gigi asks while she’s busy photoshopping her own photo on her smartphone. “Yeah, she has cancer,” Johnny says with zero sympathy. “Oh no, that’s horrible,” Gigi responds with little to no emotion. “You haven’t met her yet,” Johnny adds. This cold opening sets the tone for the entire episode, and perhaps is indicative of the entire series as a whole, suggesting that this won’t be a sob story and that they’re always going to go for the chucks over any tender moments. At this point, it’s a wise decision.
Especially if Leary can keep finding agreeable situations. You see, this isn’t just any old wedding; naturally, Elizabeth wants her son’s band to perform, which means The Heathens have another gig. Even better, they’re asked to throw on old ‘70s retro gear and perform nine Billy Joel songs, four Bee Gees tunes, and “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. It’s a ridiculous rider, sure, but it opens the door for some hilarious eye candy, specifically Rehab’s over-the-top afro, Bam Bam’s Sour Apple suit (and those blonde locks), and Flash’s conservative wig—the irony being that he wears it over his fake do. Together, the group looks like they just strolled off the set of David O. Russell’s American Hustle, but they blend in with the equally colorful surroundings, which is as always a welcome respite from Gigi’s closeted studios.
It’s not all about the gags, though. Leary orchestrates a number of ideal situations for his motley crew. The MVP, surprisingly, is Bam Bam, who spends much of the episode obsessed with the wedding’s gay BBQ caterer, Bobby Q (Michael Cyril Creighton). For weeks, the series has teased the drummer’s sexuality with not-so-subtle remarks like when when he’s talking about blowing people or staring at lead singer’s asses. They’ve always registered as something, but never amounted to anything more than a brief gag. Well, in this episode, we find out that Bam Bam has an affinity for bear-becue parties and the lengths he’s willing to go for tasty “secret ribs.” The same goes for his partner-in-crime Rehab, who gets really into the ‘70s by dropping quaaludes and chasing after elderly women. Granted, both of these stories simply expound upon their respective stereotypes, but it’s still funny stuff.
But there’s more: Johnny, Gigi, and Ava soon discover that Jeremy is more Liberace than Sinatra after Flash admits that he “hugged me, grabbed my ass, and gave me his number.” This isn’t supposed to be shocking, especially after we’re introduced to the largely flamboyant and Broadway cliché that Roger Bart is tasked to play. What’s surprising, instead, is that Elizabeth and Jeremy are totally coo de lah with their scenario. After all, he’s writing her a Broadway production and she’s giving him a story to write. “We even have sex sometimes,” he admits. “I just pretend she’s Morley Safer.” It’s weird and it’s unorthodox, but it’s also eerily charming. Not so charming, however, is when Jeremy sizes up Johnny, observing: “You remind me so much of your mother. You know, if she kicks the bucket soon, I may make a pass at you.” Sheesh.
The aforementioned heart arrives when we learn about Johnny’s parents. His mother has always been spiteful towards Johnny after she decided to drop out of Mary Poppins to have him, leaving the Oscar-winning role for Julie Andrews (hence the title above). While his father gave up on his own musical background to become a successful doctor. Unlike Elizabeth, however, Dr. Egan’s content with his decision, telling Gigi: “Failed show folk always have an excuse.” Similar to Griffin Dunne weeks ago, it’s always a pleasure to see Peter Riegert and he plays the little he’s given with so much humanity and warmth. Bishop does a fine job, too, but one can’t help but think of Jessica Walters hilarious insipid Lucille from Arrested Development. Regardless, they’re two further examples—well, three counting Bart—that the casting director knows what’s up.
“Supercalifragilisticjuliefriggingandrews” ends with a stellar punchline, but moments before, Leary paints one of the more humbling moments of the series. After dropping off his pops, Johnny, Gigi, Ava, and Flash watch as Dr. Egan picks up his saxophone and wails away in the confines of his prestigious apartment. “Could you picture yourself at his age, sitting at home with a couple drinks in you, just playing music for the pure pleasure of it,” Johnny asks his daughter. She contends that she could, but insists there would be nine Grammys on the mantel. In other words, she’s filed away the advice but will keep chasing her own dreams no matter what rejections lie ahead. But Johnny wasn’t really asking Gigi, he was speaking out loud, and there’s something beautiful about that. It’s short-lived, but sometimes that’s all you need.
- Johnny’s ringtone for his mother is a demonic laugh. Laugh riot.
- Shots fired (part quatre): “Billy Joel is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Elizabeth argues. Johnny spits back, “He should be in the drunk driving hall of fame, okay?” Someone’s starting the fire.
- Is there a deleted scene of The Heathens performing “My Heart Will Go On”? Come on!
- Vietnam: The Musical screams for Julie Taymor.
- “So Rod Stewart.” Finally, someone calls Johnny Rock’s shag for what it is.
- Jeremy: “We can go through manopause together.” ::shivers::
- Bam Bam “loves rubs,” especially “tangy red pepper ribs with a garlic rub.”
- Johnny dedicates the Heathens’ wedding song “for my mom and her new bride.” Zing.
- We all knew Elizabeth wasn’t terminal, right?
- What we don’t know is if Flash will finally sleep with Gigi! How icky is that prospect? Find out next week in “Hard Out Here for a Pimp”, hopefully starring Three 6 Mafia.